Why you should care
Because extremism in the name of a good cause is still extremism.
Hunched over one dead son to feel another son’s weakening pulse, John Brown may not have appreciated the futility of his actions. He had just defied the military, invited a barrage of bullets and was awaiting the storm.
“Terrorist” is a much-hurled moniker — foisted squarely and soundly upon the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — and some have painted the Connecticut native and abolitionist of the 1800s with a similar brush. But whether he was believed a terrorist or freedom fighter, Brown was by all accounts an extremist. He was also an absolutist guerrilla turned insurrectionist who murdered, committed treason and emerged an unlikely hero to enslaved African-Americans.
… he understood slaves to all be equally willing to rally to his cause.
Dr. Allen Guelzo, Gettysburg College
It was October 1859, and Brown and his men were holed up in the U.S. federal armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The plan had been for Brown’s band of 21 men to seize control of the armory, arm slaves and inspire insurrection and ultimately liberation.
Upon seeing the militant, Lt. J.E.B. Stuart knew he was dealing with the radical known as Osawatomie Brown, who “had made the Kansas conflict so long and bloody,” writes Evan Carton in Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America. In the bloody feud between free-soilers and slavery proponents in Kansas three years earlier, Brown had answered to nobody but himself. When pro-slavery forces set Lawrence — an anti-slavery stronghold — alight, he and his men sought revenge and executed five slavery proponents, dragging them from their beds and hacking them to death.
Brown understood “all pro-slavery people in Kansas to be equally guilty; he understood slaves to all be equally willing to rally to his cause,” says Dr. Allen Guelzo, of Gettysburg College, pointing to Brown’s absolutist nature.
This single-mindedness was instrumental in driving the raid on Harpers Ferry, where Brown was convinced he’d prevail in arming his men, taking to the hills and inspiring a slave revolt. The former slave and statesman Frederick Douglass was wary of Brown’s absolutism and refused to participate in the rebellion because he was sure that an attack on government property would foment public outrage.
Surrounded by Marines and faced with defeat, Brown refused to negotiate. “My men and I are prepared to sell our lives dearly,” he told Stuart. And with that, the troops charged, reclaiming the armory and killing or arresting the remaining raiders. Two of Brown’s sons died, and he was tried for treason in a trial that riveted the nation. A hero to some in the North, a murderer to the South — Brown drew a line in the sand for the upcoming Civil War before dying on the gallows in December 1859.
Brown was an unlikely legend, given that he’d failed in so many other respects — as a tanner, a sheep farmer, an investor. “It was always one thing totally, or another thing totally,” Guelzo says, highlighting Brown’s lack of flexibility.
It was Brown’s inflexibility and radical Calvinist upbringing that laid the foundations for his war on slavery. As a young man, Brown ran cattle up to Michigan and stayed with a U.S. marshal, where he met a black child who impressed him with his smarts and good nature. The marshal treated Brown with favor, Carton writes, but beat the black youth, whose cries haunted Brown. Years later, following the death of Illinois clergyman and abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, Brown committed his life to breaking the bonds of slavery.
Harpers Ferry and Brown’s campaign made a paranoid South think the North was coming for them. When Abraham Lincoln was elected the following year, Southerners became convinced that every Northerner they met was a potential John Brown — and talk of secession began, ultimately leading to war and emancipation.
Brown was an unequivocal radical, yet, a century and a half later, the lines have blurred and many view him as a martyr for racial equality. But when compared to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Guelzo says, “Brown is not the model you want to follow.”